At any given moment, thousands of people are sitting in rooms somewhere in Nashville, cranking out hundreds of songs, each in the often inefficacious attempt at getting their tunes cut by the artists we hear on the radio. I have been one of such people for a few years now and let me tell you, it’s a peculiar way to make a living.
On the outside, the process seems romantic. After all, what makes a better story than the great struggle of dreamers and artists clutching onto dim hope in the pursuit of success? We definitely wouldn’t have sports and musical biopics if not for our love of this narrative (look me in the eye and say you didn’t cry watching Rudy). Yet, when writing songs becomes your day and night job, the novelty fades a bit into routine. And with any routine, seemingly uncomfortable things become normal.
The first thing is the nature of co-writes. It seems like a good idea right? More minds and experiences equal better songs. But it’s not like we’re the Beatles or something, only writing songs with 3 or 4 people we’ve known forever. Oftentimes, we meet new co-writers for the first time during a write, exchanging perfunctory introductions (because it’s 9:30 AM and at least one person in the room most definitely needs to be somewhere else by 11:00) and then we get cracking on a song. It’s fundamentally awkward. This, for one, is because you’re expected to open your heart and soul to a near stranger right off the bat. The other thing is that manners go straight out the damn window during a writing session.
It’s not that people are mean (per se) during a write, but good Lord are they ever blunt. As most songwriting occurs in a “think-tank” atmosphere, with multiple people constantly throwing out ideas, you must simultaneously accept and refute ideas on the fly. The problem with this is that unlike a normal team situation, nobody is the leader with a final say. Each person in the room has an equal share in the song and feels equally entitled to their opinion (if not more entitled, since everyone likes their own ideas best – artists, am I right?). As I type these words out, it actually seems a marvel that anything gets done at all. Yet somehow, out of this chaos it does. And after you realize that it’s nothing personal (usually), you get used to hearing and saying “No, that lyric doesn’t fit,” or “You definitely copied that from a different song” or “Dude, stop saying the same thing over and over again, it’s not working.”
You develop a tougher skin and build enough confidence to not only suggest what’s in your mind but to pitch it with conviction. A writing room is a power struggle of uncertainty – nobody is ever absolutely sure a choice is the right one. If you appear to know that something is undoubtedly right, the other writers will have a harder time rejecting it (within reason of course, you can’t be like “Guys this song will be way better if we use this line from “Single Ladies” and put Beyoncé down as a writer.” So even though you’re just as insecure as everyone else, you’ve gotta bury it deep down like you’re back in your middle school locker room and stride confidently into the showers with everyone else.
Usually, when the gears are turning and people are debating, you know you’re going to come out of the session with a song. I don’t necessarily mean a good song, yet a song nevertheless. The chances of the song you just wrote getting cut is preposterously slim. And while every person in the room is painfully aware of this fact, the knowledge of such sordid statistics do very little to dampen the effort you put in. Songwriting is, at the same time, infinitely rewarding and heartbreakingly cruel. But a writers’ room is only a room until you begin writing, a guitar is merely a guitar until you start playing, a pen is simply a pen until you put it to paper. There are no investments nor expensive equipment to give you a leg up in the writing room. Perhaps that is the most interesting thing of all. It’s the knowledge that the worst and greatest song ever written was conceived using the very same tools you have before you. It’s the rush of creating material from immaterial, anticipating that at any moment, you might strike gold.
And when you do, man will it ever be sweet.